Abstract: Varna Necropolis and the oldest processed gold in worlds history
There is a passage, a place in the middle, a way to confuse the borders, a crossroad of water in between two worlds. Reflections of Asia and Europe become one face, many faces, who is who? Where is Where? …
The water of the Black Sea is dark and pale. There is no brightness, no clarity, but waves as of mist. It is a water made to cover, to hide, to protect, to nourish mysteries.
A strange astonishing place has been uncovered by its water. An ancient culture capable to the finest work of gold, capable to gather a treasure that shocked the world.
After 6000 of years Varna Necropolis and the old processed gold in world’s history, by accident, has been brought to life.
The discovery of Varna Necropolis
Coincidences often changes the course of the history. Varna Necropolis does not make exception. During works in the industrial area of the present days City of Varna, back in 1972, the excavator operator Rycho Marinov uncovered accidentally some strange artifacts of gold, copper, and stones in what is now known as Grave 1. He did not mean to do it. He was just digging a trench for electrical cables.
The artifacts were strange and looked old and different from any other kind of things He saw in his life. Rycho got curios to understand what he uncovered. Only one man could find an answer to its doubt, the wisest he never met: Mr Dimitar Zlatarski, his primary school teacher.
We do not know if Dimitar, expert in archaeology and founder of the Dalgopol Museum, was more shocked by the fact that finally his ex student did something remarkable and worth to be remembered, or by the artifacts itself. Sure is that after he recovered he immediately called the Varna Archaeology Museum, something extremely important has been brought to light.
The museum sent a small team to examine the artifacts and the place of the finding. The importance of the discovery was evident at the first look.
Excavations begun shortly after under the direction of Dr. Mihail Lazarov (1972-1976) and Dr. S. Ivanov (1972-1991). The artefacts Mr Rycho uncovered were just some of the gifts deposited into the burials of what was a necropolis dated back to the Eneolithic (Copper Age) between 6200-6400 years ago.
The significance of Varna Necropolis
Varna Necropolis is located in an industrial area approximately 4 km west of Varna City Center and 400 meters from the shores of Varna Lake, on a slope rising from Southeast to Northwest, between 12-18 meters above the lake level. When the Necropolis was dug, the water of a gulf opening into the Black Sea was at its edge. In spite of its importance Varna Necropolis is quite neglected nowadays.
Between 1972 and 1991 the team of Varna Archaeology Museum excavated 294 graves in an area of 7500 square meters. Over 3000 gold objects of a wide range of design and weighing more than 6 kilograms came to light. Grave 43 contained more gold than it has been found in the entire rest of the world for that epoch.
1600 copper objects, 90 stone works, 239 flint artefacts, 650 clay products, over 12000 Dentalium shells and about 1100 Spondylus shell ornaments (bracelets, necklaces and appliqués) imported from different areas.
A rich, stunning for quality, “treasure” as never found before. The excavator of the site, S. Ivanov, dated the gold material to the fifth millennium BC, thus being the oldest processed gold in the world, but the exact dating of the site and the gold is still debated among the scholars. The archaeologists found three different kinds of burials: burials in supine position, burials in crouched position, and “cenotaph” or symbolic burials that do not contain the skeleton but only gifts.
Some burials were too fragmented or empty thus a classification was not possible. The symbolic burials are the richest in gold. “… the complexity of the burials customs that is basically reflected by the different patterns of grave assemblages and the variety of depositions is associated with different social strata and mirror the complex ideological system of the Varna Society… the multitude of grave assemblages and funerary rites evince a collective labour of investment and mirror a well-organised and stratified society that used this funeral place” (Leush, Pernikca, Armbruster)
Dr David G. Zanotti noticed that as the excavation moved from Southeast to Northwest the density of the burials increased. Generally the oldest part of a necropolis is the one with a higher density of burials. This fact means that probably the excavation are moving to the oldest part of Varna Necropolis.
The pattern of the burials also changed. As the excavation moved towards Northeast, cenotaph became rare till they disappeared after Grave 97. The crouched burials became the more common, even if supine burials were still found with certain constance. Some disturbance of the burials has been noticed due to the use of the Varna Necropolis till late Bronze Age.
When it has been possible determine the sex of the burials, it came out that females were preferably interred in a flexed position, and the male mostly in the supine position.
Varna Necropolis was conceptually and spatially separated from any place of dwelling. This physic distance was a psychological distance too: it indicates that the rituals connected to funeral practices were getting more intense and splitting from other religious practices as was evident in the case of household funeral rituals.
There are strong evidences that Varna Necropolis was used by several communities since its early stage. This fact postulates the emerging of Varna as a political and cultural force on a wide networks of groups and indicates that cultural habits and belief were shared among distant communities.
It is hard understand in details the society of Varna Culture, but is evident that the Varna society was hierarchical and patriarchal: “Not surprisingly, the greatest emphasis in studies of Varna has been placed on the variability in grave good deposition. Three categories of graves may be identified with their social correlates: lavish graves, representing paramount chiefs, with grave goods made from a wide range of materials, including gold, copper and shell and with special mortuary insignia; rich graves, representing patrons, with more than six grave goods, including some objects made of copper or shell or gold; and poor graves, representing clients, with up to five grave goods but with no copper, gold or shell artefacts … This scenario confirms the alignment of the most striking grave assemblages with periods of intense social change–those periods where new status positions were under negotiation (Childe 1945). Given the overall duration of burial practices for just over a century, it may mean that the most spectacular graves were constructed over a period of less than 50 years–perhaps only one or two prehistoric generations… the absence of the superordinate dimension in the later graves at Varna I would suggest a more stable social structure, with a reduced level of competition for elite roles (Childe 1945). The ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ graves may be categorised as patrons and clients, in a system that emerged in the Late Eneolithic once there was a sufficient number of prestige metal and shell goods in the exchange network. This phase also may well not have lasted much more than 50-60 years–two or three generations.”
The discovery of Varna Necropolis thus testify that in Europe the rising of a complex, hierarchical society, with a division of the labour, and the existence of highly skilled specialized workers, happened earlier than it was thought.
Stratified societies normally rise where both economy and technology allow an accumulation of richness that determines the creation of different social strata, and/or where the complexity of the work need a organization.
A complex “international trade” as well as a network of political relationship is evident even at so early stage of the human society. This leaded some scholars to consider Varna Culture as the more ancient civilization of Europe: “the development of metal working as an occupation, the development of sea transport (the only form possible at the time), other crafts and trade. Ceramic work was particularly fine and delicate. The so-called “stilt settlements” appeared for the first time in architectural history. For the first time in Europe, the construction of homes on stone foundations (Durankulak) and protective stone bastions (Provadia) was introduced. The first graves with stone surrounds and coverings are seen here. The accumulations of copper and gold items define the region as a place where metal working prospered. The same can be said of jewellery. Trade is also believed to have developed for the first time. Trading was carried out by sea routes, evidence of which can be seen by the importation of raw materials from the Southern Black Sea and the Aegean world, and the exportation of Varna goods and raw materials to places thousands of kilometres from the Varna centre to the East to Volga and the West to France and Denmark. This allows David Keys to claim that “international trade began here 7300 years ago” (Svetlar Popov, The Chalcolithic Civilisation in Varna)
The dating of the site is still uncertain but scholars agree that the necropolis was in use for around 400 years. After this period of presperity Varna culture experienced a sudden decline. The reasons are still uncertain, different theories has been made as invasions, climate change, exhaustion of the resources.
The Exhibit of Varna Necropolis at Varna Archaeology Museum
The museum is an elegant white building of new renaissance style right in the middle of a park of Varna City centre. It has been a Girl’s High School for long but since 1943 has been devoted to keep memory of the past. It is a square block with a basement, two upper floors, and a central courtyard. Tower-like attachments underline the four corners. The rooms of the exhibit run along the courtyard in chronologically order, so prehistory is the first on the way. The rooms have black walls. A soft, low lighting creates a dark, cosy environment, perfect to release the imagination… Pottery, bone and stone artefacts, and some antropomorphic idols found place in the first room. The shape are elegant, fine works of art which do not match with the idea of a “primitive” culture. But it is in the second room that the visitor will be astonished.
The skeleton of a child is the first thing that catch my attention in the second room. He was 11 years old. A prehistoric family deposed him with care and love, as a family would do now, in the hope of an after life, another chance, a possibility that not everything is doomed to vanish. A deep sense of time and nostalgia come from his empty eyes. Other cases display artefacts from his time, stones, bones, and the first shy shining of the gold…
Few steps further and we fall into the wonder… The third room showcases the hoard of Varna Necropolis. Here is where the weave of history beats with violence. In the middle of the room, as he deserves to be honoured even in present time, there is the grave of a Chief, the Grave 43, the richest in gold that has been found in Varna.
He lays, supine. He does not defend himself, he faces the death as a ruler. He holds a stone mace decorated with a golden tip and ornamentation in his right hand. A golden diadem consisting of 10 large round appliqués rounds his head as a sort of strange constellation. Two golden disk are gently placed on his skull. He wears 16 earrings and eight loops of gold beads around his neck. He has a gold inlaid bow and quiver for arrows over his shoulder. Four large gold bracelets honour his arms. A bracelet made of Spondylus shells is on his left arm. His entire outer garment was embroidered with 41 gold appliqués as a golden carpet of stars to rock his sleep. He bores a golden chest-plate and two small golden appliqués on his hip. There are round golden knee plates on his legs, his phallus was covered by a fine veil of gold. Two copper hammer axes, images of other copper tools, two spearheads of copper and three flint blades complete the gift for a dead chief. The richness of this burial is impressive, a total of 1003 golden artefacts with a weight of 1.524 kg.
How many resources has been devoted to glorify dead? He is not a man any more, he is something else, something bigger: he is an idea, the idea of power, the idea that not all we are the same, the idea that there are servants and kings. He is the ruler, he is the power, and here he stands, in all his glory, covered with gold, almost as laughing in his greed. He fell into the death but it grasped desperately the living world and gold is what his hands pulled away. Gold, resources, the work of a whole society.
He rests in is golden cage, he rests in the devotion of his people, he had right to the memory because he could impose his will. His memory was able to win over the time. Through his memory a whole age of mankind is partially unveiled to us, an age when gold and greed already poisoned our minds.
It is one more piece of the big puzzle of our story, of our identity, and once again there is no hope, no light but the dark shining of the greed and the will to rule. The ghosts that our mind creates looks deep-rooted in our past: power, hierarchy, fear of death and hope to win over the black queen through rituals, gifts, symbols, hope to find a form of redemption that can save us from the end, the hope of an eternal life.
Eternity. Even so long ago our mind got the perception of the never-ending, of the possibility to break the time, the possibility to posses it. Nothing really changed, we are still the same, with same greed of gold, with same greed of eternity. Equality looks not belonging to our soul or at least to our history. Stones artefacts, idols, shells, pottery, and gold, gold, gold, the rest of the exhibit is a series of cases showing a treasure of the finest gold. Bracelets, rings, pendants, appliqués, disks. The quantity is astonishing as astonishing is the quality of the work. 6000 of years, 6000 of years ago we were already capable to do that.
I look at the fine work of that ancient blacksmiths. There is something funny in it: the same power who generated hierarchy, slaves and kings, was the reason of the rising of the art, made beauty blossoms. Is that a compensation?
Mystery is what I used to feel when staring at our oldest heritage, mystery, mist, waves of time rising and crashing on my mind to enlighten, to inspire my soul. But now I see no mystery, just history, the same old history. Gold for the ruler, gold for the eternity, gold for death and not for life.
About the gold of Varna Necropolis
The gold found was not equally distributed on all the graves and it represents an exception to the rule, thus the quantity is astonishing for that epoch. Graves 1, 4, and 36 yielded 1398 gold artefacts, this represent the 68% of all the gold found at Varna. Analysis of the weight of the gold artefacts suggest that already at that time there was a basic weight unit. Down below there is list of the gold artefact as listed in the Okayama Exhibit (David G. Zanotti) beads 2250 applied ornaments 193 rings 175 spiral bands 27 bracelets 14 Different theory place the origin of the raw gold in present days Bulgaria, Transylvania, Thraco-Makedonia, Western or Northeaster Anatolia, Near East. Several technical problem still makes hard for scholars determine the origin of the raw material. The gold has a pale colour, unusual for us. This is due to different way used to process it and the presence of other minerals.
Important note about the dating of Varna Necropolis and its finding
The excavations of the Varna Necropolis stopped in the 1990s, about 30% of the estimated area is still not excavated. A full publication of the site and its archaeological findings has still to be published. The dating of Varna artefacts present certain technical difficulties, as well as the interpretation of the finding. Most of about Varna necropolis is still debated by specialists.
1) Higham, T., Chapman, J., Slavchev, V., Gaydarska, B., Honch, N., Yordanov, Y., & Dimitrova, B. (2007). New perspectives on the Varna cemetery (Bulgaria) – AMS dates and social implications. Antiquity, 81(313), 640–654. Full text available at www.academia.edu (Free subscription needes in order to download/read the text)
2) Ruslan Kostov. Symmetry of form and weight: standardization of gold and mineral artifacts from the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis (5th millennium BC) Full text available at www.academia.edu
3) Svetolar Popov, The Chalcolithic Civilisation in Varna 4) Verena Leusch, Barbara Armbruster, Ernst Pernika. Chalcolithic Gold from Varna – Provenance, circulation, processing, and function. Full text available at www.academia.edu